Take a bow, I.N.D.I.A. bloc!

Some congratulations are in order... before the pollsters and pundits retrofit their wisdom to the verdict on 4 June

INDIA bloc leaders at a press briefing on 1 June (photo courtesy @INCIndia/X)
INDIA bloc leaders at a press briefing on 1 June (photo courtesy @INCIndia/X)

Uttam Sengupta

You should know better than to take those exit polls at face value—just as pollsters find data to confirm their own biases, we gravitate to pollsters who confirm our biases.

The wise and the chastened will wait for Judgement Day.

Exit polls, some will remember, did go spectacularly wrong in 2004—remember the BJP’s ‘India Shining’ campaign? They went wrong in various assembly elections too— Bihar and Delhi in 2015, Uttar Pradesh in 2017, Karnataka in 2023, to name just a few.

The 2024 elections were even harder to call because people were hesitant to speak their minds in public—an air of fear and mistrust made even the garrulous Indian wary. Even those who want change and voted for it sounded wary of even contemplating that the INDIA bloc might pull off an upset win.

Before the elections got underway on 19 April, few would have expected the ‘ragtag’ INDIA bloc to put up a half-decent challenge to the might of Modi’s BJP. Distrust of a partisan Election Commission and the electoral process—never as high as this year—also contributed to the belief that the people’s mandate may be stolen.

If the Opposition bloc does pull it off (which looks highly probable at the time of going to press on 30 May), it will have a savvy electorate to thank as well, for fighting a marauding regime that did its damnedest to thwart the political opposition.

In the circumstances, it was a heroic fight.

The INDIA bloc—with Rahul Gandhi as its undeclared mascot, and the likes of Sharad Pawar, Uddhav Thackeray, Tejashwi Yadav and Akhilesh Yadav ably holding it up through all the attempts to destabilise the Opposition—managed to set the agenda for these elections.

They fought for the voters' mind space, for their everyday concerns—inflation and unemployment—and against the long-term consequences of the BJP’s assaults on the Constitution, if they returned to power.

They waged this heroic battle in the teeth of the BJP’s mighty propaganda machinery—with mainstream media at its vanguard.

For this alone, they need to be congratulated.

As late as early April, only diehard optimists would wager that the INDIA bloc could even put up a credible fight. The hastily concluded consecration of the Ram Mandir, most commentators felt, had already secured victory for the BJP.

Within a week of the consecration, on 22 January, two former constituents of the INDIA bloc — Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) and Jayant Chaudhary’s RLD — joined the BJP, as did several prominent Congressmen, including Milind Deora, said to have been a member of Rahul Gandhi’s inner circle.

January was a dramatic month.

When Opposition leaders decided to avoid the pran pratishtha ceremony in Ayodhya, the BJP gleefully projected it as proof that the INDIA bloc was ‘anti-Ram’/ ‘anti-Hindu’. Pundits in TV studios agreed the ‘boycott’ would be suicidal for the Opposition.

On 30 January, the BJP rigged the mayoral election in Chandigarh.

On 31 January, Hemant Soren resigned as chief minister of Jharkhand minutes before his arrest.

Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s arrest in February was preceded by the income tax department’s move to freeze the bank accounts of the Congress.

The Opposition had been pushed to the wall and it did, at this point, look like the election was a mere formality.

Who could have imagined, in these circumstances, that the INDIA bloc would put up the kind of resistance it did?

That pollsters and even the mainstream media would begin to reluctantly concede that the contest was tight?

Who would have thought that the TV channels that queued up for staged interviews with the prime minister even while the elections were on would perforce allow doubts to leach into their broadcasts?


Prime Minister Narendra Modi had reasons to appear triumphant in February.

Replying to the debate on the interim budget in Parliament, he gloated that most of the opposition members would occupy the visitors’ gallery after the election. Many opposition leaders would shy away from contesting and search for escape routes to the Rajya Sabha, he’d said.

A third term for his government was just 125 days away, he declared; the NDA would cross 400 seats and the BJP bag at least 370 on its own.

It was as if he was addressing a political rally rather than Parliament.

He disdainfully refused to address issues the Opposition was 'going on' about—like the price rise, especially of fuel and foodstuff, and unemployment.

Instead, he spoke of his ‘gift’ to the nation—a new parliament building, where he installed the sengol (ironically a medieval symbol of feudal authority) in the ‘temple of democracy’.

Truth be told, the Opposition did look like it was in trouble.

Seat-sharing talks had hit a wall.

Nitish Kumar, who walked out of an INDIA bloc meeting in mid-January and joined hands with the BJP a fortnight later, claimed he had tried but failed to make the Alliance work.

Mamata Banerjee announced that her Trinamool Congress would go it alone in Bengal.

Punjab chief minister Bhagwant Mann ruled out any seat sharing with AAP in Punjab.

In Kerala, there was no way the Left and Congress would make common cause.

In Uttar Pradesh, BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party) chief Mayawati kept everyone dangling before she declared her intention to stay away from the INDIA bloc.

The Alliance seemed to be imploding.

On 14 January, when Rahul Gandhi embarked on the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra (BJNY) — his second road marathon in a little over a year — it was roundly criticised as an ‘ill-timed’ initiative.

Gandhi, we heard various pundits pronounce, lacked a sense of the moment. Elections were round the corner, and his long absence from Delhi (till 20 March) was an abdication of responsibility. It would hurt the Opposition, they seemed to agree.

With mainstream media blacking out the yatra, it was hard to tell how effective it might be as an instrument of popular mobilisation.

The only time the yatra—which started from Imphal in Manipur—got some publicity was when Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma organised black flag protests, refused permission for a roadshow in Guwahati and ordered the police to file an FIR against Rahul Gandhi.

“I’ll arrest him after the election for causing public disturbance,” Sarma imperiously said.

The Congress leaders, to their credit, did not rise to the bait. Not even when Mamata Banerjee, supposedly an ally, refused to join the BJNY’s short journey through north Bengal.


Sanjay Kumar of CSDS-Lokniti was candid in confessing recently that he’d laughed when Rahul Gandhi and the INDIA bloc leaders spoke of the threat to our democracy and the Constitution. (The Congress manifesto also talks about this.)

These issues did resonate with voters, he conceded in a live TV discussion, admitting he’d been wrong about this earlier. He was not the only one.

When was a party manifesto taken so seriously by the people—read, downloaded and discussed in this fashion? The Congress manifesto released in the first week of April was indeed a turning point.

In no recent election has a manifesto played such a key role in shaping people’s opinion. No manifesto has responded to various critical issues with the kind of specific solutions that we see in the Congress manifesto.

Take the jobs crisis, for example.

The manifesto addresses this not only by promising to fill up vacancies, but also focuses on enhancing eligibility for employment and ensuring job security once the job is obtained.

It talks of:

  • abolishing jobs on contract

  • hiring more people on higher pay in the health, education and rural development sectors

  • abolishing the short-term Agniveer scheme in the armed forces

  • and a guarantee to ensure that all graduates and diploma holders get a year’s training as paid apprentices.

The INDIA bloc outwitted the BJP even tactically, by refusing to project a prime ministerial candidate.

This forced Modi to take on M.K. Stalin in Tamil Nadu, Siddaramaiah in Karnataka, Uddhav Thackeray in Maharashtra, Tejashwi Yadav in Bihar and ‘UP ke ladke’ Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi.

His narrative against dynasties cut no ice.

He felt compelled to distort the Congress manifesto and had nothing to say about the BJP manifesto.

The BJP and the NDA may still win.

Not only because the BJP is richer and better organised, but also because it has filled our democratic institutions with pliable yes-men. Its stranglehold on the media, the police and central agencies, the electoral machinery may all come to its rescue.

But on the eve [ed: now on the morrow] of the exit polls and then the actual results, it is still conceivable the Opposition will pull off a surprise.

For making that even plausible, the INDIA bloc should take a bow.

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